IT WAS THIRTY MINUTES of real-life drama a young Northern Irish girl would never forget.
As she sat in the living room of her County Armagh home a nearby television was headlining the evening news but she caught only snatches of the main story: “Tragic accident this evening . . . cargo ship the Lairdsfield . . . sunk with the loss of all of her crew . . .”
To nine-year-old Annette the story meant little beyond the fact that her ‘granda’ was a merchant navy seaman himself. But fifty years later, what happened in that next half-hour was to haunt her for the rest of her life. For one of the ten men who perished when the MV Lairdsfield capsized off the mouth of the River Tees on a bitterly cold February night in 1970 was her grandfather, sea captain William Hood.
“He had been visiting his daughter in Great Ayton near Middlesbrough and [as an employee of the B&L shipping line] decided to hitch a lift home on the Belfast-bound vessel,” she recalls sadly.
“She was carrying a cargo of steel plates and girders from Middlesbrough to Cork before sailing on to Belfast and my 63-year-old grandfather – who was a ship’s captain in his own right – agreed to stand in as Second Mate for the voyage when the original officer fell ill.”
As the Lairdsfield left the mouth of the River Tees and turned south the cargo shifted disastrously and the ship capsized within seconds. There were no survivors, despite a rapid and heroic rescue attempt by local lifeboat crews.
The little girl who heard the news that revealed her grandfather’s untimely death is now Mrs Annette Woolfson, a librarian who lives with her husband Andrew in Crookham, Northumberland. She takes up the story of how the news shattered her family. . .
“I distinctly remember watching the evening news and seeing the story. It resonated with me because of granda but I had no idea he was on board.
“Minutes later the phone rang. “it was my grandmother; she was hysterical, I thought she was having a heart attack. My mum was across the road at a neighbour’s house and I remember running across the road shouting for her to come quick.
“I will see to my dying day the image of my mum standing framed in the living room doorway and turning to our neighbour saying, ‘My daddy’s boat has gone down. . .’ And then she just slid down the door frame.
“Mum and I stayed with Nanna for quite a while afterwards. It was awful and no doubt I don’t know the half of it. I think five bodies were eventually recovered and my poor uncle, being one of the nearest family members, had to go each time to identify them. My granda was never found.”
Now those vivid memories of 50 years ago have encouraged Annette to remember those lost. She explains:
“Several years ago I took my late mum and her sister to the Birger Anchor Memorial on the Esplanade at Redcar. [The French barque the Birger was wrecked on Saltscar Rocks near Redcar in 1898 with the loss of 13 lives but its anchor was only recently retrieved from the seabed, restored and placed on the Esplanade as a permanent reminder of one of the North Sea’s greatest tragedies.] The memorial also carries a plaque placed by the Merchant Navy Association dedicated to all those who have been lost in this stretch of the North Sea.
“My Aunt Betty, now in her 90s, is keen to mark the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the Lairdsfield so I contacted the Redcar RNLI, the Merchant Navy Association, the Royal British Legion and the Mission to Seafarers and all will be sending representatives to a memorial service which is to held at the anchor on 6th February 2020 at 1pm.”
The service will be led by the Rev. Rachel Harrison, vicar of St. Peter’s Church, Redcar. The standards of the RNLI, the Merchant Navy Association and the British Legion will be paraded, wreaths laid and the names of the 10 lost crewmen will be read. As well as family and others who wish to pay tribute, several men who were involved in the rescue will attend.
Sadly, Annette’s mother – who was so anxious to see her father memorialised – died recently and her Uncle Billy is unable to attend but Annette, along with other family members, will represent them both at the ceremony.
Why? Well, she retains a fierce pride in her ‘Granda Hood’ and a special devotion to her maternal grandparents “because they had 10 grandchildren but only one granddaughter, hence I was the apple of my granda’s eye!”
And a nine-year-old never forgets.